Roll over “Ben”, there’s a new killer rat in town

It’s difficult to strike the right balance between a script that’s descriptive but not clunky, sound effects that don’t feel like someone’s just hit Play on “Spooky Manor Sounds vol 4” and acting that doesn’t sound like a corporate orientation video.

Mark Steadman
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Hullo. This is officially issue #1 of The Big Minute, and I’m gonna level with you: this first minute is… well, it’s a lot.

It’s from The Callisto Protocol: Helix Station. The subtitle is due to the fact that this is a companion podcast to a new sci-fi horror video game, which bares a resemblance to Dead Space (a game I played and enjoyed back in the day).

One thing you should know about me is I’m incredibly fussy about audio fiction. It’s difficult to strike the right balance between a script that’s descriptive but not clunky, sound effects that don’t feel like someone’s just hit Play on “Spooky Manor Sounds vol 4” and acting that doesn’t sound like a corporate orientation video.

Where I find the acting in this podcast to be a little “big” – these are video game characters after all – I forgive it because of its plot, its imaginative storytelling, and its superb sound design.

The minute I’m bringing you is from episode 2, and starts at 9:01. The scene starts off as Die Hard in Space, with our gang crawling through the arteries of an abandoned space station. We’re told very little about the station, except that a very bad thing happened, and a lot of people got unpleasantly, and permanently dead.

The minute starts with our heroine – played by Brienne of Tarth – coming upon a rat who is very much worse for wear. If you’re squeamish, I won’t go into any more detail and I’ll advise you not to listen to the clip or the podcast. But I picked this minute because it’s a spine-tingly, goose-pimply bit of grotesque horror. That might not be your bag, but what it does, it does very well.

It paints vivid pictures, and although I’d like the acting to be turned from 11 to a cooler 8, what makes it are the vivid descriptions and unsettling sound effects.

The music is a little on the “bwaaarp” side, but it works, and those squeaky rat noises… now, I’m not afraid of rats but I can see how, if you were, these might give you the heebiest of jeebies. I’m guessing it borrows its sound design from the team behind the game, as it does the cast.

For me though, the writing does the heavy lifting here. Creating such rich imagery primarily with dialogue is difficult, so I appreciate how the writers have managed to skirt around some of the more obvious exposition traps. We don’t usually go around describing things to our friends when they can fully see them too, so I’m always impressed when dialogue writers can figure out how to do this well (see also the “As You Know, Bob” trope).

On that note, I’ve been impressed by both episodes’ ability to tell an unfolding story in a way that keeps the listener intrigued, and to paint an engaging and sometimes emotive picture in the mind. The main character’s arc covers substance abuse, we have some unreliable narrator tropes, and flashbacks are impressively audibly signposted.

I’m intrigued to hear how the rest of the season unfolds. If I were picking nits, I might advise the writers not to put American words in British mouths… we can’t say things like “god dammit” or “asshole” without it sounding, well, pretty rum me ol’ spoon.

Thanks to future sponsor Podnews for including this podcast in their feed of trailers, which is what brought the show to my attention. If you know of a fiction podcast that can meet all my picky standards, post it in the comments!

And 10 points if you got the “Ben” reference in the title. And congrats, that makes you officially old, just like me.

Rat’ll do it for now. Catch you next Sunday!


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